Directed by Jodie Foster
Original Screenplay by Kyle Killen
Principal Actors: Mel Gibson with Jennifer Lawrence & Anton Yelchin
Summary: Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is stuck at the bottom of an all-consuming depressive cycle, and his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) has lost hope. Then Walter discovers a ratty old hand puppet, and a miracle occurs: Walter is able to reclaim his voice through the beaver. Beavers ebullient personality lifts Walter from the depths and starts him on a manic rise, and one by one, everyone falls under Beavers spell.
The subplot, in which teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is drawn into a soulful romance with classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), runs parallel, and even though hes determined to be his fathers opposite in every way, Porter too begins to speak his own truest thoughts through the voice of another.
Director Jodie Foster keeps her Oscar-winning actor self on a tight leash, but her intelligence grounds the film and helps everyone else in it to shine. And with Foster physically there onscreen to return to after every emotional flip and turn with Beaver, Gibson gives the most heartfelt performance of his tumultuous career.
Major Depression is a serious and widespread illness, so forget everything you think you know about Mel Gibson (the man), and just watch “The Beaver” for the promise of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
When we first see “Walter Black” (Mel Gibson), he appears to be a prosperous middle-aged guy floating in the beautiful pool behind his deluxe suburban home. But the first close-up on his face instantly reveals that Walter’s life is actually a nightmare; he’s deeply mentally ill and stuck at the bottom of an all-consuming depressive cycle.
Walter’s wife “Meredith” (Jodie Foster) is exhausted, their teenage son “Porter” (Anton Yelchin) is enraged, and their young son “Henry” (Riley Thomas Stewart) is filled with inchoate sadness. Everyone has lost hope, and thinking she must sacrifice her marriage in order to save her sons, Meredith finally asks Walter to move out.
With no energy left to protest, Walter packs up and drives away. Then he discovers a ratty old puppet, and putting his hand inside the plush torso brings back sense memories of happier times. Suddenly a miracle occurs: instead of seeing himself playing “Beaver” while cavorting with his kids, Walter finds himself conversing with Beaver directly.
Beaver’s ebullient personality completely takes over, lifting Walter from the depths and starting him on a manic rise. One by one, everyone falls under Beaver’s spell: first Henry, of course, then Meredith, then the people in Walter’s company, then the “liberal media” (Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, and Terry Gross of National Public Radio all have cameo roles), and finally even Porter.
And watching them together, the actors on the screen and the people in the audience fuse as we begin to participate in the story too. Rationally, we all know that Beaver can’t exist without Walter. Since Walter isn’t a trained ventriloquist, his lips are always moving whenever Beaver “speaks,” and Walter makes no attempt to hide himself (like a Muppet puppeteer) while Beaver entertains the crowd. And yet, emotionally, we all understand that Beaver is also more than Walter, just as all artistic creations come to take on a life of their own beyond their creators’ conscious intent.
The dynamic between artist and muse, who paints and who poses, who writes and who reads, is underlined by the subplot in which Porter is drawn into a soulful romance with “Norah” (Jennifer Lawrence), a person more adept than Walter at hiding her secret despair. As the valedictorian of their high school class, Norah must give a speech at graduation, so she hires Porter to write it for her. Porter’s empathy for Norah, fed by his adolescent longing, opens his heart, and even though his ferocious goal is to be his father’s opposite in every way, Porter too begins to speak his own truest thoughts through the voice of another.
Director Jodie Foster keeps her Oscar-winning actor self on a tight leash. We never get to know much about Meredith beyond her roles as wife and mother, and it seems the director only cast the star in this film so she could be an active maternal presence both in front of the camera as well as behind it. Foster’s intelligence grounds the film and helps everyone else in it to shine.
The choice of Mel Gibson for Walter was particularly inspired and watching them together is like watching a high-flying trapeze act at the center of a three ring circus. With Foster physically there to return to after every emotional flip and turn with Beaver, Gibson gives the most heartfelt performance of his tumultuous career.
Director Foster asserts herself in the film’s very first moments by showing Gibson as Walter literally flagellating himself on screen. I felt like she was speaking directly to me: “Yes, I know; you’re bringing all your mixed feelings about The Passion of the Christ, Opus Dei, Catholicism and anti-Semitism into this theatre with you, Jan, but push them all out of your mind right now and watch my movie!”
Yes, ma’am! When I left the screening room approximately two hours later, I realized I’d completely forgotten about Mel Gibson (the man/the persona). I only cared about Walter and Norah, and artists everywhere struggling so hard to tell compelling personal stories that capture, with awe, our shared humanity.
I’m certain Foster worked very hard to make Norah a fully realized character, and Lawrence’s performance burnishes the Oscar nomination she received last year for Winter’s Bone. Beautiful young actresses are often badly misused these days, but together Foster and Lawrence make Norah a strong and significant part of a drama that could easily have devolved into a more routine father/son story. Without Norah’s solid presence, Porter’s transformation would strain credulity, but Lawrence’s performance sets a high bar and gives Anton Yelchin room to grow. To become the man who will be worthy of Norah means, of course, that Porter must find a way to meet his father halfway.
Major Depression is a serious and widespread illness. Since it’s all “in the head;” no one can see it or touch it; the main symptoms (fatigue, irritability, feelings of isolation, etc) are insidious, hovering at the edge of awareness, easy to ignore, excuse or deny. In our culture, which embraces “men of action” (“the strong, silent type”), Major Depression is especially traumatic for adult males, and the consequences can be devastating for a man’s family and everyone else in his orbit.
So bravo to Foster and her entire cast and crew, their eyes all fixed on the potential for light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Please do not read until after you have seen The Beaver.
I predict that reactions to The Beaver will depend in large part on how specific individuals understand the history of Walter Black’s relationship with the beaver puppet. Therefore I decided to go back and test my own “theory of origin” before posting this review, and now, having seen The Beaver a second time, I can tell you for sure that a case can be made either way.
Here’s what I saw: After Meredith asks him to move out, Walter drives to a liquor store and buys way too much booze. When he opens the trunk of his car to stash it, we can clearly see that the trunk is already filled with boxes, but except for an old tennis racquet, none of the contents are visible. Walter removes the box with the tennis racquet and drops it into the dumpster. That’s when Walter sees—and we see—the beaver puppet for the first time.
Question: Where did the beaver puppet come from? Did Beaver come from the trunk of Walter’s car (in the box with the tennis racquet), or was Beaver already in the dumpster before Walter came out of the liquor store?
My Answer: Beaver came from the trunk of Walter’s car. When Walter sees Beaver in the dumpster, he’s seeing an old friend from playtimes past, and when Walter starts talking in Beaver’s voice, he’s using a voice created long ago for conversations with his kids. So this is not a new voice; this is a voice Walter has had in his head for years.
In most instances, we either see Beaver from behind (with Walter in close-up), or Beaver and Walter sharing one frame. In both cases, Walter’s lips are always moving. Foster never uses any special effects to imply that Beaver’s voice comes directly from the puppet, nor does Walter ever show any special skill as a ventriloquist. So even Walter knows that Beaver’s voice is his own, and that’s how he introduces Beaver with his “this person is under the care of a prescription puppet” card.
By the time Meredith first sees Beaver, Walter and Henry are already at play. We don’t see how Henry first reacted when Walter and Beaver came to pick him up at school, so we don’t know if Beaver was ever Henry’s toy. But the puppet is pretty ratty, so my guess is that Beaver was originally Porter’s toy. Regardless, Henry is positively thrilled to welcome both Walter AND Beaver into his life, and that’s why Meredith decides to go along with it … at least for a while …
Obviously, when I wrote the original draft of my review, I wrote from the belief that Beaver came from Walter’s trunk. So I always knew who/what Beaver was, and I had no difficultly suspending disbelief from beginning to end. But as I said above, a case can be made either way, so if you think otherwise, I’m not about to tell you that you’re wrong.
Artistic Creativity and Bipolar Mood Disorder
I just did a Google search on “Depression + Artists” and got over 16 million results in .08 seconds, led by these two from the National Institutes of Health:
“Comparing to the general population, bipolar mood disorder is highly overrepresented among writers and artists.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15462476
“The relationships between depression and art are many and varied. Examples of poets, novelists, and musicians spring to mind who have vividly portrayed depression, usually from personal experience of it. These portrayals often had a psychohygienic significance for the artists concerned—as in the case of Goethe, who, in writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, exorcised his own suicidal impulses and thoughts, thus probably saving his own life … Relationships between depression and art also play a role in certain theories of creativity, such as that of Silverman, who postulates that in the depressive phase new impressions arise which then find their expression in a manic phase.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3575627
Reader, if you “don’t want to go there,” that’s certainly your decision, but I applaud Jody Foster for taking this difficult topic on, and I also applaud Mel Gibson for his raw, brilliant, and courageous self-exposure. If I ruled the world, then come January 2012, he would be short-listed for an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category.
One final word to my fellow film critics who gave Iron Man a 94% “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes (Tony Stark: “I am Ironman; the suit and I are one.”), but gave The Beaver a 63% “Rotten” score: may you live long and prosper without ever suffering from depression and/or loving someone who does.
Jan Lisa Huttner (5/6/11)—Special for WomenArts
Photo Credit: Ken Regan/Summit Entertainment